Adrienne Cooper, world-renowned Yiddish singer and educator, was interviewed on December 28, 2010 at KlezKamp, in the Catskills of New York. In her interview, Adrienne talks about coming from a long line of singers. Her mother was a Yiddish and Hebrew singer, and she says that Yiddish was in her ear from the time she was born.
Adrienne grew up in Oakland, California. She describes her family as “not frum,” although they kept kosher at home, and observed Shabbat. They belonged first to an Orthodox and then to a Conservative shul. She credits the synagogues as the source of her Jewish literacy and says she spent “five days a week in shul studying,” although she also attended public schools throughout her childhood. She had friends in school, but her best friends were in Young Judea, a peer-led Zionist youth group through which she learned about socialism and Zionism.
Adrienne spent two years at the University of California, Berkeley, and then moved to Israel, where she studied History and English Literature at Hebrew University. After finishing her degree, she returned to the United States and pursued a Ph.D in History at the University of Chicago. During that time, she attended the Yiddish summer program at the YIVO Institute in New York. She says she had “no idea why she started with Yiddish,” but the language attracted her. After her summer at YIVO, Adrienne was offered a fellowship there, became Assistant Director of YIVO’s Max Weinreich Center for Advanced Jewish Studies, and went on to direct the YIVO summer program.
The six-week summer program comprised three hours of language learning each morning and Yiddish cultural activities each afternoon, five days a week. Adrienne, observing that many people couldn’t devote so much time to learning a language, wondered if the structure could be changed to emphasize cultural immersion, with a smaller language component. In 1985, Adrienne and Henry Sapoznik co-founded such a program: KlezKamp, an annual, week-long immersion in Klezmer music and Yiddish culture. Adrienne says that KlezKamp emerged from a desire to make Yiddish accessible to a larger and more diverse group of people.
Adrienne discusses passing Yiddish on to her daughter, Yiddish singer and lyricist Sarah Gordon. Adrienne sang to her in Yiddish from the time she was born, and taught her some vocabulary, trying to reproduce her own experience of hearing Yiddish throughout her childhood. Yiddish was not regularly spoken in their home, but Adrienne says Sarah absorbed the culture by “osmosis”: many of her babysitters were YIVO students, and she spent every winter holiday at KlezKamp. Adrienne describes a photograph of four-year-old Sarah sitting at Max Weinreich’s desk, talking into the phone. When Sarah was 12 years old, she and Adrienne worked together on a CD about remembering the children of the Holocaust, continuing the family tradition of music.
Adrienne says she is attracted to Yiddish because it provides an opportunity to connect to living, participatory Jewish culture. She describes her love for the golesdikayt – the off-balance, exiled quality – of Yiddish culture. She says that because Yiddish is not “culturally dominant,” it needs our energy, our desire, and our participation. Adrienne reminds us that Yiddish belongs to us, and we have every right and also every responsibility to it. She asks us to be bold and fearless in order to explore and create in Yiddish, so that our culture persists.